The Jewish Attitude Towards Refugees

The Midrash relates the following episode: In the days of the Roman Empire, in the city of Tzipori, a town just west of Tiberius lived a simple man named Yusta. He served as the local tailor, sitting and sewing all day at his spot along the main street of the town. During a visit to Rome, this simple man managed to encounter the Emperor and over a sequence of events found favour in his eyes. As a gesture, the Emperor offered to grant Yusta any wish. The tailor asked to be appointed governor over his native city. When Yusta, now the newly appointed governor of the city, returned to Tzipori, the townspeople began to argue: “Was the new governor actually their old tailor?” Some said it was Yusta, while others maintained such a thing was impossible. How could the simple tailor have risen so dramatically? It must surely be another person!

One wise man suggested a simple test: While parading through the city marketplace, the new governor would pass the place where good old Yusta once sat and tailored clothing. “If the governor turns his head to gaze at that spot, we will know that he is Yusta,” said the wise man. “If he passes by without looking, we will know that he is not.” The next time the governor passed down the main street, those watching saw him turn and look longingly at his old workplace, and everyone knew that the governor was, Yusta the tailor.

A simple question: Having lived with Yusta for many years, why were the townspeople suddenly unable to recognize the face of their old landsman? And if they were unsure of his identity, why did they need to contrive a scheme to determine who he was? Wouldn’t it have been much simpler to just ask him who he was?

Yet, perhaps the debate among the townspeople concerning their new governor was not whether he was, in fact, Yusta. Of course he was. Everyone recognised him as such. But there was a much deeper question raging between them. We know the governor is Yusta – but does the governor know that he’s Yusta? Has this man, who has now risen to prominence forgotten his humble beginnings? Had the modest Yusta retained his integrity upon rising to power, or had our good old Yusta been replaced by a pompous, self-centred and egocentric politician?

Said the wise man: “Let us determine, if while parading through the city as its new master, Yusta looks back to his shop, to where he came from, to his meek and unpretentious start in life recalling his former self as a tailor.”

This is a question we must all ask of ourselves. We have all progressed through life. We have all advanced, we’re all accomplished as we will have risen to prominence each in our individual way. But do we recall our humble beginnings? Do we remember how we were but mere tailors and cobblers, shoemakers and farmers who came to these shores sometimes with little or nothing but the shirts on our backs, escaping the persecutions left behind.

The acid test of how well we remember is reflected in whether we dare to look back – behind us to others who may today be undergoing a similar plight. You open your newspaper, you switch on your TV, you download on your computer and you see images of people struggling to escape their war torn countries; images of flimsy boats overloaded with people desperately trying to reach safe shores; and alas images of the many who perish in the process – young and old alike. And no matter how horrific the images of people drowning, the atrocities they are fleeing are far worse. You have to understand that no one puts their children in a boat unless the sea is safer than the land. So do we look back – do we feel, identify, empathise with their trouble or have we become so pompous in our own lives such to become indifferent to them.

Every story in the Bible is essentially one of refugees. When Adam and Eve are sent from the Garden of Eden they became refugees. And G-d reassured them that they will be able to build a new life outside, thus offering them hope and a future.

When Ishmael was sent from his father Abraham’s home he found himself wallowing in a barren desert. He was a refugee and G-d sent an angel to reassure him, to rescue him, to offer him hope and a future.

When Jacob had to run for fear of his life from his father’s home he found himself alone, destitute in a dark world. He was a refugee and G-d came to him and reassured him, and offered him hope and promise for the future.

When Joseph was sold by his brothers he found himself struggling in an alien environment, he was a refugee, lost to his family and the world he once knew. But he was embraced by his host country and he was able to rise to prominence once more.

When Moses had to flee for his life to Midian, he was a refugee. And the then Midianite priest took him in, gave him shelter, and enabled him to live, to survive and to thrive once more.

When my mother had to run from the Nazi invasion of Holland, away from her parents and family at such a tender young age, she was a refugee, and a Dutch priest took her in and provided for her and protected her for two years and literally saved her life.

Many if not most of us are where we are on account of our ancestry, or indeed immediate family, that at one point or another found themselves running for their lives and someone somewhere reached out and gave them refuge. Every one of us is Yusta. And maybe we have become doctors and lawyers and Rabbis and successful businessmen. But what are we like when we pass the old tailor shop? What sort of emotions are evoked when we see others facing a similar plight? Do we look on with the same indifference that we still blame the world for when it turned its back on countless of our own brothers and sisters? Or do we remember with some degree of humility our humble beginnings and appreciate that something must be done for others in the same boat – quite literally.

Yes I would imagine some of us – maybe many of us may make certain distinctions in our minds. Perhaps we feel that the response to those coming from Muslim countries is distinctly different. Of course you do – because prejudice is one of the principle constituents of the human personality. Anyone who looks into their own hearts honestly enough knows it to be true. And all those years ago, make no mistake about it, there were those who thought and felt the same about us as Jews. We called it Anti-Semitism. And you do have to then wonder in what way we might be any different.

Yes there has to be integration and that process is long and protracted. But I had major surgery last summer by an Egyptian doctor who became my hero. I have a friend whose child’s life was saved by a Pakistani doctor. Many of you will interact almost daily with people from different cultures that contribute to your life in one form or another.

There are many challenges facing the international community today but few, in my mind, are more pressing than those of finding humanitarian solutions to refugee problems. We talk of regional conflicts, of economic and social crises, of political instability, of abuses of human rights, of racism, religious intolerance, inequalities between rich and poor, hunger, over-population, under-development, the list is endless. Each and every one of these impediments to humanity’s pursuit of well-being are also among the root causes of refugee problems.

The bottom line is this: When a world has people who are refugees, you know there’s something deeply wrong with our whole culture, our priorities and our humanity. Yusta passed the test. Even as governor, he never forgot where he came from. Looking back upon that place where he once sat and sewed, he remembered his humble origins. We too must ponder our own humble beginnings and be sufficiently moved about the plight of others as well. We are all of a people and it all comes down to one of the opening verses in the Bible: “And G-d created man in His image.” We all live with the objective of striving to be in His image; our lives are all different and yet the same. If we all respected that reality, if you really believe that “you are G-d’s child,” about yourself, then you would believe that about others as well, because you know that G-d has many children.